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I am against ageism and believe that people should be treated equally, but that does not mean that we treat everybody equally during their early development. We do not treat seven-year-olds the same as 12-year-olds, 12-year-olds the same as 16-year-olds or 16-year-olds the same as 18-year-olds or 25-year-olds, and so on. I
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do not need to go further into that debate, as it has already been done well by my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean.

I strongly reject the argument that politicians do not pay attention to 16 and 17-year-olds. That is rather an insulting thing for anybody to say. Of course we pay attention to 16 and 17-year-olds. It is quite disgusting to suggest that because somebody does not have the right to vote in a constituency, the MP might not take up their case or argue their point. If someone who had come from abroad and was not a citizen of this country, and therefore did not have the right to vote, were urgently to need help on some welfare matter, any of us as good MPs would take up that case and deal with it.

If someone moved into my constituency from another, but was not yet registered to vote there, and had problems with housing or getting their children into a school, I would not say—I hope that any half-decent MP would not, either—“You can’t vote in my constituency, so I am not going to work for you.” That is a very insulting argument, and it is quite wrong. To suggest that politicians do not listen to 16 or 17-year-olds because they do not have the right to vote is nonsense. It is also illogical, because 16 and 17-year-olds very soon become 18-year-olds. I find that many of the people in my constituency whom I knew through the debating competition are now becoming councillors and so on. They are very involved in the political process.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Does the hon. Lady agree that those young people have parents who are voters and possibly brothers and sisters who are voters, and that they would take a dim view if we treated those 16 and 17-year-olds with the contempt that some people have suggested?

Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman is, not for the first time this morning, absolutely correct. If a 16 or 17-year-old person came to my office to ask for my advice, my first thought would be: where is that person's mother and father or guardian, who should be guiding them through life at the age of 16 and 17? I would first get in touch with the parent; I would not say, “You should be able to vote, so get on with life on your own.” It is precisely because the adults have a responsibility and a duty to nurture the young people in our society until they are at a stage when they can completely stand on their own two feet, that we treat 16 and 17-year-olds and children differently from the way in which we treat adults and those over the age of 18.

The idea that those of us in this House, for example, who are of a certain generation are out of touch with young people is wrong. It was probably right in previous generations when there was a much larger generation gap—I remember my father frequently referring to students as long-haired louts, and that included my friends when I was a student. There was a big generation gap between those born in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s and those born in the ’60s and ’70s. I do not think that there is such an enormous generation gap between those born in the ’60s and ’70s and those born in the ’80s and ’90s. Having been those wild students ourselves, that generation is far closer to the young generation of today.

Many 16 and 17-year-olds are very involved in the political process. Most hon. Members were probably involved in some way in politics long before they were
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18, but perhaps we are not a representative example of the population. I take as an example a young lady, Francesca Whiteoak, now aged 17, who is coming here next week to work in my office for what her school calls “work experience” before going to university. She is a brilliant politics student. In recent exams, she has undertaken an analysis of the democratic system and many of the big political and moral issues that face us in the world and the country today, but she and her friends are not calling for the right to vote because they know that they are on a journey and the next staging post in that journey is when they become 18 and can exercise the right to vote. At the moment, they are learning and gaining wisdom and experience on the way to having that right to vote.

Harry Cohen: Being over 16 and under 18, is that girl too ignorant to vote?

Mrs. Laing: I am sorry, but I did not hear the hon. Gentleman.

Harry Cohen: Is that girl too ignorant to vote?

Mrs. Laing: I did not hear the hon. Gentleman but perhaps he has not heard me for the past five minutes. I have been giving the positive message that it is insulting to suggest that 16 and 17-year-olds are too ignorant to vote or are not able to vote. I have been explaining about people who take part in the debating competitions in my constituency, and about how Francesca Whiteoak, who will be here next week to observe the democratic process at first hand in the Chamber, and her friends are studying politics and economics at school. They are extremely well informed, extremely intelligent and intellectually very well placed. I have to repeat—I am sorry to take up the time of the House but the hon. Gentleman is clearly not listening—that, although they are intellectually well qualified to vote, they accept, and I argue, that the time has not come for them to have a vote, but they are on the way to becoming 18 and having that right.

Harry Cohen: It is not a question of what young people accept. Are they too ignorant to have the vote or not?

Mrs. Laing: The hon. Gentleman is wasting hon. Members’ time. No, young people are not too ignorant to vote. Most 16 and 17-year-olds are involved in their local communities, and many of them are well educated on political, constitutional and economic matters.

Mr. Harper: The argument advanced by the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen) was used a number of times during my speech. No one who is against the Bill has made any negative comments about younger people—I have been here since the beginning of the debate. Unless the right to vote were to begin at birth, there must be a point at which people are eligible to vote, which means that some people will be disappointed. However intellectually qualified 16 or 17-year-olds may be, if the voting age were changed to 16, we could all wheel out examples—the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) made this point in his speech—of 14-year-olds,
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and perhaps even of 12-year-olds, who are intellectually capable of voting. There is no logical place to stop once one separates being an adult and being able to vote. That is a simple concept, and advancing straw man arguments that no one on this side of the argument has made does not help the debate.

Mrs. Laing: As I am sure that you will warn me in a moment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, we must concentrate on the subject of the debate. Nobody has suggested that 16 and 17-year-olds are too ignorant to vote. Voting is a right, a duty and a privilege. Many people do not bother to exercise that right, and I suggest that they display a degree of ignorance, because they do not bother to engage with the democratic process. Sixteen and 17-year-olds who are waiting until they are 18 and who are getting ready for full citizenship are certainly not too ignorant to vote.

Mr. Stewart Jackson: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Laing: If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I must make progress, because many hon. Members want to speak and time is getting on.

As we teach our children when they are young, and as we suggest to young people as they approach majority, there are many things in life that we value all the more because they are worth waiting for, and exercising one’s vote is one of those things. In response to the points raised by the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), I mentioned a young councillor, Rebecca Cohen, who is 19 and who was elected to Epping Forest district council just a few weeks ago. At 19, she is well able to take on that position, which she is doing extremely well. However, I do not think that she could have done it properly at 16 or 17. Having reached the maturity of 18, and having taken a little longer to gain some experience of the world, she is fulfilling that post very well at 19. None of us is trying to stop young people becoming fully engaged, which we want to encourage at all times. Earlier, a Liberal Democrat Member suggested that if we do not change the law, we are saying that 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds are incapable or unworthy. Just as I have argued with the hon. Member for Leyton and Wanstead that they are certainly not too ignorant, they are not incapable or unworthy.

My main argument against the Bill concerns the question of rights. Correctly, we often discuss rights in this House, but whenever we create a right, there must be a corresponding responsibility. If there is no responsibility, then there is no right, because rights without responsibilities are meaningless. By giving people the right to vote, we are also conferring on them the burden of the responsibility to vote. I argue that 16 and 17-year-olds are gradually given plenty of responsibilities as they move on through life and grow up. It is not right to pile on all those responsibilities at once. Children of younger age groups have to be protected and 16 and 17-year-olds still have to be nurtured and helped along the way while they gradually make the transition from childhood to adulthood.

There is a lot of evidence from recent polling and the Electoral Commission’s recent review to show that there is absolutely no need to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. I was interested in the arguments brought forward by the hon. Member for Cardiff, North, but she did not
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produce any piece of evidence that made me doubt my position for one moment. I thought that she might cite evidence that might make some of us think that the issue should be pursued, but she did not.

Mr. Harper: On the subject of evidence, I have just been perusing some details that might interest the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan). In March 2003, a GfK NOP poll of electors in Wales for HTV, the local ITV station, found that when asked directly whether the age for first-time voters should be reduced from 18 to 16, 77 per cent. of people were opposed. Among 18 to 24-year-olds, the figure was 66 per cent.; it rose to 88 per cent. among older voters. The Electoral Commission’s report found similar levels of opposition, as well as indifference among younger voters. The evidence is clear.

Mrs. Laing: I thank my hon. Friend for that helpful piece of evidence.

In its recent review, the Electoral Commission concluded that there is “insufficient justification” for a change to the voting age. I was amused to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean mention that excellent, wise and experienced politician who said that he was not sure whether he would always want 16-year-olds to do all the things that they can do. That was Tony Blair, and he was right. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Cardiff, North wishes that he was still here to give her party some guidance.

Julie Morgan rose—

Mrs. Laing: I am anxious to conclude, but I will of course give way to the hon. Lady, whose Bill this is.

Julie Morgan: I shall be brief. Will the hon. Lady acknowledge that, whatever else she says about the Electoral Commission, it did say that the issue should be considered again in five years’ time—which is now?

Mrs. Laing: I said in my opening remarks that the matter should be reviewed.

In conclusion, I should say that getting the right to vote is one of the rites of passage from childhood to adulthood. It is one of the issues that marks a change from a restricted lifestyle to total freedom—from childhood along the gradual path to full citizenship. Eighteen is the right age for that, and therefore 18 is the right age at which people should be given the vote. We will not encourage young people to become more involved and exercise their votes once they have them by changing the system, but by giving them something to believe in and a political system that they can trust.

We need to show, through the example of how we deal with matters in this place, that young people can have confidence in our democratic process and may wish to become part of it in due course. We need to let them know that casting a vote will make a difference. I say to those who are 16 and 17 now that if the next general election comes when we expect it—sadly, that is two years away—they will then have the right to vote. I sincerely hope that they will have a real choice on how to make a change for a better Britain; my hon. Friends and I will do all we can to bring that about.

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1.9 pm

Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) on doing the House and indeed the country a favour by promoting this Bill. Despite the voices speaking against her proposal of votes at 16, I think that she is on the right side of the argument and that increasingly people will come to agree with her that this change in electoral law should be made.

It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who is my near neighbour; I appreciate the work that she does. The whole tenor of her speech was that from the ages of 16 to 18 people are serving an apprenticeship to vote. The thought went through my mind—what part is the apprenticeship for? Is it the bit of the cross that goes from left to right or the bit that goes from right to left? That is what a vote is—it is a pretty simple act. [ Interruption. ] It is an important act—of course it is—but it is not difficult; people of all ages make decisions on their feelings about what is important to them. I think that people can be mature enough at 16, presumably like the girl who is to be employed by the hon. Lady, and who seems to be a very bright girl who has finished her schooling and got all the qualifications and is now getting the work experience. How can one say that she is too ignorant to vote or not ready to do so—that she needs an apprenticeship? She is ready, as are many other young boys and girls in her position.

Mrs. Laing: The girl I used as an example does not think that she is ready to vote. She thinks that she will be when she is 18, but not yet.

Harry Cohen: From what the hon. Lady said, I think that the girl would be a lot more qualified to vote than many people in the general population.

I agree with the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper) that there needs to be a cut-off point. Clearly, someone of 14 will not have the educational skills of that girl of 16.

Mr. Harper: The hon. Gentleman clearly thinks that 16 is the right age to be able to vote, but no lower, so I hope that he will explain why a 15-year-old does not have the necessary qualities. Are they too ignorant? That is the logic of what he has been throwing at me and my hon. Friends. We have all met people of younger than 16 who have opinions and are very articulate, but that does not mean that they should all have the vote.

Harry Cohen: That is not the logic of what I am saying. I agree that there should be a cut-off point, which in my opinion is clearly 16. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is about the difference between childhood and adulthood. Under 16 is deemed to be childhood for all the important issues, and 16 and over is deemed to be adulthood.

Mr. Kevan Jones: I am very fond of my hon. Friend, as he knows, but he is defeating his own argument. If he is arguing for a cut-off point, as he calls it, at 16, what is to stop people saying in a few years’ time that 15, for example, should be the voting age, especially in light of the fact that we meet—I am sure that he does when he goes into schools—some very opinionated and well-informed 14 and 15-year-olds?

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Harry Cohen: In a democracy, there is nothing to stop people arguing for what they want, but there are some clear indicators that 16 is the cut-off point where the vote should be granted—leaving school, for example.

Mr. Newmark: Unfortunately, as we have seen, particularly in the past 10 years, many people leave school at the age of 16 who still do not even understand the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. The fact that they leave school at 16 should be no basis for the hon. Gentleman’s argument. My 14-year-old daughter Lily is a particularly sophisticated person when it comes to politics. Under his argument, why should she not have the vote? I still do not understand his argument.

Harry Cohen: Leaving school is one of the factors in my argument, but I point out to the hon. Gentleman the young lad whom I saw yesterday in the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. We were holding an inquiry into carers, and this young man was a carer who had cared for his parent, a very ill woman. He is not as bright as the girl whom the hon. Member for Epping Forest is going to employ—he will not have the same academic qualifications—but he will have grown up through that role. He has now left school and is going on to college, and I think that he was mature enough to have the vote at 16. Leaving school is just one of the indicators, but it is an important one because it leads us to the next one. People can start work at that age, and the point about no taxation without representation comes into play.

Mr. Kevan Jones: Again, my hon. Friend has just shot down his argument in flames. Are we not as a Government trying to legislate to keep people in education until the age of 18? He is arbitrarily using the leaving age of 16, but increasing the age to 18 justifies the voting age remaining at 18.

Harry Cohen: I do not think that my hon. Friend has understood what the Government are proposing. The Government are not proposing to keep all children in school until they are 18, but to give them other training courses at colleges and the like. My point is that we often put work and skills, or work and full-time education together. Once we get into that area—and it comes into play at 16—there should be an eligibility to vote.

Mr. Harper: The point made by the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) is important. Only 5 per cent. of 16-year-olds and 17 per cent. of 17-year-olds are employed and paying income tax, while 89 per cent. of 16-year-olds and 68 per cent. of 17-year-olds are still in education. The idea that everyone leaves school at 16 and should get the vote just does not hold water.

Harry Cohen: That still means that a substantial number work from that age and pay taxes, which means that they should have a say and have a vote, under the principle of no taxation without representation.

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